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The Archives and the Secret Archives
Required by Canon Law

Thomas Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.

1. The Code of Canon Law states a requirement that every diocese have an archive in which are kept the instruments and writings which pertain to the spiritual and temporal affairs of the diocese. (cc. 486-488). In other words, all of the files of the diocese, including personnel files, are to be kept.

2. Furthermore there is to be a secret archive in every diocese where more sensitive materials are kept (cc. 489-490). The canons specify very few specific items that must be kept in the secret archives. These include internal forum matrimonial dispensations (c. 1082), secret marriages (c. 1133), dispensations from impediments to orders (cc. 1047-1048), decrees of dismissal from religious life (c. 700) and documents relating to the loss of the clerical state by dismissal, invalidity of orders or dispensation (cc. 290-293). Also the records of canonical penal trials involving matters of morals are to be kept in the secret archive.

3. The canons do not give specific examples of documents that are to be kept in the ordinary archives. Also, there is no specific mention in the canons of personnel files, although it is commonly known that every diocese keeps a personnel file on all clerics who are either incardinated in the diocese or on loan to the diocese. Often these files contain a wide variety of information: biographical and academic information, records of assignments, letters sent about clerics (with both good and bad information), medical and psychiatric records.

4. Matters involving penal procedures are to be kept in the secret archive. When an allegation of an offense is made known to an ordinary, he is obliged by the law to conduct a preliminary investigation either personally or through another (c. 1717). Canon 1719 refers to the acts of the investigation which are to be kept in the secret archives. This canon presumes that a written record of the investigation is made and retained. Any investigations of priests alleged to have committed sexual assault on children or anyone else would fall into this category.

5. There are two fora or places for the exchange of information in Church law: the external forum concerning matters about which a record may be kept, and the internal forum, about matters of conscience about which no records are kept with the exception of decisions and decrees of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome. The most common place for the internal forum is sacramental confession. No records are ever kept of sacramental confessions. All matters for which there is a record, whether this is considered a confidential record or not, are matters for the external forum. Records of all canonical trials, penal procedures and investigations are matter of the external forum. Matters in the external forum are not subject to the seal of the confessional.

6. Judicial matters such as penal investigations are not matters of the internal forum by the very fact that a record of the investigation is mandated by the law. Similarly, the contents of a personnel file are not presumed to be matters of the internal forum.

7. The communications between religious superiors and their subjects and bishops and their clergy are not presumed to be internal forum matter unless it is a question of communications received in the course of sacramental confession or spiritual direction or a communication which is explicitly understood to be in the non-sacramental internal forum.

8. Documents contained in the general archives are not to be removed unless there is permission to do so from the bishop or from both the moderator of the curia and the chancellor. Then they are only to be removed for a short period of time. (canon 488)

9. All documents in the archives are to be retained and not destroyed. Certain documents from the secret archives are to be destroyed however. These are the documents relating to criminal cases, that is, cases involving the allegation of the commission of a canonical crime. The documents that are to be destroyed are those which pertain to a person accused of a crime who has died or documents pertaining to a criminal case, ten years after the case has been closed. Even when the documentation is destroyed, a summary of the cases is to be retained along with the sentence of the tribunal if the case was subjected to a complete canonical trial. (canon 489)

10. The above canons refer to the revised Code of Canon Law (1983). Similar legislation existed in the prior Code (1917) which went out of force upon the promulgation of the new Code.

— Thomas P. Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.
April 6, 2002

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